Wednesday 3 December 2014

The court martial of Captain McVay was a sham         

This is an interesting true story of horror, injustice, sadness and finally exoneration. The story begins in August 1944; the final month of the American war with Japan. I was only eleven then so I didn’t know about the events relating to American naval Captain Charles McVay until many years later. When I learned the facts, I was shocked and saddened by how this man was unjustly treated by Fleet Admiral Earnest Joseph King. And now, the story of what actually happened.

The Americans had created and tested an atomic bomb and President Truman had decided that the only way Japan would surrender would be to drop such a bomb on Japan’s cities. The plane carrying the bomb would fly from the Island of Tinian which is about 5 nautical miles (9.3 km) southwest of Saipan. It has a land area of 39 square miles (100 km2) The Japanese forces were chased off the island and the Americans subsequently built two runways, having a combined total of six 8,500-foot (2,600-meter) runways. From those runways, they could easily fly to Japan.

It was wisely decided that the bomb material would be carried to Tinian by a heavy cruiser named the Indianapolis. There were 1,196 crewmen aboard her under the command of Captain Charles McVay.

The captain was born in Ephrata, Pennsylvania on July 30, 1898 to a Navy family. His father,  Charles Butler McVay Jr., had commanded the tender Yankton during the cruise of the Great White Fleet (1907–1909), and later he was an admiral in the United States Navy during World War I.  He also served as Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Fleet during the early 1930s. 

Before taking command of the Indianapolis in November 1944, Captain Charles McVay was the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Combined Chiefs of Staff  in Washington, D.C., which was the Allies' highest intelligence unit. Earlier in World War II, he was awarded the Silver Star for displaying courage under fire.

Captain McVay led the ship through the invasion of Iwo Jima, then the bombardment of  Okinawa  in the spring of 1945, during  which the Indianapolis anti-aircraft guns shot down seven enemy planes before the ship was struck by a kamikaze on March 31, inflicting heavy casualties, including 13 dead, and penetrating the ship's hull. McVay returned the ship. safely to Mare Island in California for repairs

Sometime after the Indianapolis was repaired, the ship received orders to sail to Tinian carrying parts and nuclear material to be used in the atomic bombs which were soon after to be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  After delivering her top secret cargo, the ship headed towards the Phillipines.

Early in the morning of July 30, 1945, she was attacked by the Japanese submarine I-58 operating under Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto. Commander Hashimoto had launched six torpedoes and hit the Indianapolis twice, the first removing over forty feet of her bow, the second hitting the starboard side below the bridge. The Indianapolis immediately took a fifteen degree list, capsized and sank within 12 minutes. Of the crew of 1,196 men, 879 men died. It was the worst disaster at sea during the entire war for the US Navy.

About 300 of the 1,196 men on board died in the initial attack. The rest of the crew, more than 880 men, were left floating in the water without lifeboats until the rescue was completed five days later.

It has been part of folklore that most of the casualties of the survivors in the water were due to shark attacks; however, most of them died from injuries that had previously been sustained aboard the ship, dehydration, exhaustion, and the result of drinking salt water.

If Captain McVay thought he had problems fighting the Japanese, his worst enemy was the American Fleet Admiral, Ernest Joseph King. This admiral was out to destroy Captain McVay’s career. But why?

Admiral King was the Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet (COMINCH) and Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) during World War II. As COMINCH-CNO, he directed the United States Navy's operations, planning, and administration and was a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was the U.S. Navy's second most senior officer after Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, and the second admiral to be promoted to five a star rank. He served under Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox and later under James Forrestal.                                                                                            

King was born in Lorain, Ohio, on 23 November 1878, the son of James Clydesdale King and Elizabeth Keam King. He attended the United States Naval Academy from 1897 until 1901, graduating fourth in his class. During his senior year at the Academy, he attained the rank of Midshipman Lieutenant Commander, the highest midshipman ranking at that time.

He had extensive experience on ships and in the war office but I want to get to the matter of his desire to sink Captain McVay’s career in the navy.           He was demanding and authoritarian, and could be abrasive and abusive to subordinates. King was widely respected for his ability, but not liked by many of the officers he commanded. He was the most disliked Allied leader of World War II however British Field Marshal Montgomery may have had more enemies than King had.

When King served under the Captain’s father, Admiral McVay when they were in China, he was given a tongue lashing by Admiral McVay for some mistake that King had made and he never forgave the Captain’s father. Many people later believed and still believe that Admiral King was using the sinking of the Indianapolis as a means of getting even with his former superior who was still alive by making him see the downfall of his son at the hands of his former subordinate.  If that is true, then it brings shame upon Admiral King’s legacy.

Admiral King brought Captain McVay before a court martial. The trial began in December 1945. McVay was confronted with two charges: hazarding his ships safety through failure to follow Admiral King’s standing orders to zig zag, and failing to issue timely orders to abandon ship.

Commander Hashimoto, the sub’s captain who was brought to the trial by the U.S. Navy to testify, offered testimony that the Indianapolis was not zig zaging at the time he launched his torpedoes. However, Hashimoto left many questions unanswered. Did he actually fire two or three torpedoes, and were they conventional as he stated?  He said that the I-58 sub carried six Kaiten suicide pilots to control the torpedoes. Should anyone at the court martial have taken his word as being factual? The question still lingers as to what type of torpedoes were actually fired from his submarine.

After an apparent pleasant stay in the U.S., Hashimoto returned to Japan where he lived until he died on October 25, 2000. Before his death he wrote a letter to Senator John Warner suggesting that McVay had been unjustly convicted because in his opinion the captain had done nothing wrong. He did not understand why the Court Martial even took place.  He obviously didn`t know what Admiral King’s real motive was in beinging Captain McVay before a court martial.

Navy command had no knowledge of the ship's sinking until survivors were spotted five days later. At 10:25 on August 2, a PV-1 Ventura flown by Lieutenant Wilbur ‘Chuck’ Gwinn and copilot Lieutenant Warren Colwell spotted the men adrift while on a routine patrol flight. Of the 880 who survived the sinking, only 321 men came out of the water alive.  Four later died. They all suffered from lack of food and water (some found  rations  such as  Spam  and  crackers  amongst the debris), exposure to the harsh elements that are common in the oceans which included (hypothermia,  dehydration,  starvation and   dementia), and some shark attacks, while some killed themselves or other survivors while suffering from various states of  delirium  and hallucinations.

Why didn’t the navy know that the Indianapolis was overdue? The answer to that question can be summed up in one word—stupidity. The policy then was that the navy didn’t want the ships to notify the navy headquarters in the Philippines which was their destination as to what their actual location was.  And the navy headquarters in the Philippines didn’t even want the ships to tell them that they have returned to base. The reason for this stupidity was that they thought that the Japanese code breakers would know where the ships were and send submarines after them. That makes sense but it would be academic when the ship is sinking and it certainly wouldn’t be a problem if the ships had returned to their navy base.

Nevertheless, Captain McVay had sent three distress signals before the ship sank. Three stations received the signals; however, none acted upon the call. One commander was drunk, another had ordered his men not to disturb him and a third thought it was a Japanese trap. For a long time the Navy denied that a distress call had been sent. The existence of the calls came to light only after the release of declassified records. When the ship did not reach Leyte on the 31st, as scheduled, no report was made that she was overdue. This omission was due to a misunderstanding of the Movement Report System.

In the end, the court found Captain McVay guilty of the charge “Through Negligence Suffering A Vessel Of The Navy To Be Hazarded”. Since all communications were inoperative he was not found guilty of the “Abandon Ship” command. It is still not known if or to whom the order was given. The hearings continued and charges and counter charges were filed.

McVay admitted that he was 100% responsible for the tragedy. His admission was proof Admiral King needed to show that a captain of a ship  should be court martialed for a failing to protect it if it results in members of his crew being injured or killed. Captain McVay being the son of an Admiral, a second generation Naval Academy graduate, knew very well what his responsibilities were. He said, “I was in command of the ship and I am responsible for it’s fate.” In his Court Martial he testified, “I know I cannot shirk the responsibility of command.”

The jury of officers gave McVay a light sentence. He did not get demoted as commonly thought he would be. He was merely set back in line for promotion. However his career was sufficiently tarnished so he felt compelled to retire in 1949, with a promotion to Rear Admiral, consistent with the practice of the day. He never stopped receiving hate mail from relatives of sailors killed in the sinking. His conviction rendered him not only legally culpable for their deaths, but a felon as well. His wife died of cancer, leaving him a lonely defeated man. He was never the same again. On November, 6, 1968 he dressed in his best Navy uniform, walked onto his front porch, put the barrel of a handgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Meanwhile his service record would continue to list him as a felon.

When the headlines appeared in all the newspapers about the decision of the court martial, there were many who felt that McVay was guilty and had a fair trial. Others considered that he wasn’t guilty of anything. As the years passed I am sure that none of those people had changed their mind, so his guilt or innocence would remain a matter of personal opinion to them.

His son, Kimo Eilder McVay, fought for years to clear his father's record. Years later, a congressional resolution signed into law by President Clinton changed McVay’s record to show that he was exonerated.  A directive from Navy Secretary Gordon England ordered a document exonerating the elder McVay to be placed in his file. The ship and crew was also awarded a Navy Unit Commendation.

The real question to be answered was whether or not if the Indianapolis had been sig zaging, would the torpedoes still have struck the Indianapolis? According to Hashimoto`s testimony, even if the ship was zig zaging, his torpedoes still would have hit it. What we will never know is why Captain McVay didn’t zig zag his ship. If he thought that it was unnecessary, then that was a fatal mistake on his part. In my respectful opinion, he should have sig zaged his ship. Despite what the Japanese submariner said at the court martial, it is conceivable that his torpedoes may have missed hitting the Indianapolis if it had been zig zaging while heading towards the Phillipines. That question will nag historians forever because there will be no definitive answer available to them.  

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